Trey Parker and Matt Stone have referred to their 14 South Park films for Paramount Plus as “made-for-TV-movies.” While that distinction may not seem to mean much in the streaming world of today, viewers of a certain age will understand the scope: a story that’s not quite epic enough for the big screen, but also doesn’t have the tight pacing and bite-sized runtime of a television episode.
While, South Park: Post COVID, the first of these installments, lives up to Parker and Stone’s descriptor, its issues don’t have as much to do with scope as they do with self-containment. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (the show’s first and so far only feature-length film) and even the two specials from the past year can all be enjoyed as standalone stories, more or less.
Even if you need a working knowledge of the show’s recent seasons to understand some of the finer story points of The Pandemic Special and South ParQ Vaccination Special, they both at least have a clear entry point and resolution. Post COVID, on the other hand, not only ends on a cliffhanger, but wraps up right as it feels like it’s getting started.
Taking place 40 years in the future, it undercuts the end of Vaccination Special by revealing that, no, the pandemic didn’t actually end until very recently. Even worse, a new variant has taken the life of Kenny McCormick (now a celebrated scientist), and everyone has to go back into lockdown shortly after they’ve returned to South Park for his funeral.
Much of the front half is devoted to the necessary work of showing just how much the show’s characters and the world at large have changed (or not changed) over the past four decades. Stan has moved away and grown into a bitter middle-aged man who samples online whiskey, while Kyle has stuck around town and stepped into the shoes of Mr. Mackey as the school’s guidance counselor.
In two of the film’s best jokes as far as its characters are concerned, Cartman has (supposedly) grown into a kind and devoted rabbi with a loving family, and Jimmy Valmer is a late-night host who’s perpetually frustrated that he has to make his jokes so safe and empowering that they aren’t jokes at all. We check in with most of the show’s other supporting characters, too, from a married Tweek and Craig to an assisted-living facility that houses just about all of South Park’s surviving adults.
While the Cartman and Jimmy scenes are a constant source of amusement (including the former staying over at Kyle’s house in a bit that’s too good to spoil here), there’s no denying that over a half hour of Post COVID’s 58-minute runtime feels like table-setting. Sure, it’s a fun conceit to catch up with adult versions of so many younger characters we’ve come to know and love. But the driving engine involves these same childhood friends seeking out Kenny’s unfinished research so they can end COVID for good, and Parker and Stone don’t even introduce that plot point until halfway through.
There’s also the issue of most of the characters’ backstories fitting more in the realm of redundant adult drama than the outlandishness of South Park. Even though that’s the point (“The future sucks” might as well be the movie’s thesis), it ends up being more interesting in terms of the show’s lore rather than its comedy.
Thankfully, as soon as the core foursome of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are reunited via a morgue scene that embraces the full-frontal nudity allowed by Paramount+, Post COVID is able to break out of the adults-coming-home narrative of It Chapter Two and into another madcap adventure that mixes sci-fi, blue humor, and relentless sociopolitical satire. When considering the secret uncovered in Kenny’s research, maybe that was intentional on Parker and Stone’s part. Even if we’re not left with quite as blunt a message as we are at the end of so many South Park episodes, there’s a resonant urging for us all not to lose our collective sense of wonder and optimism if we’re ever going to fully eradicate the pandemic, or at least coexist with it in a happier state than some folks are now.
Make no mistake—that moral doesn’t come with any sense of finality. By the end of Post COVID, South Park’s now-adult kids are far from getting rid of COVID, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of several other plot points, including Clyde’s Aaron Rodgers-skewering refusal to get vaccinated and Stan discovering the role that—who else?—Randy played in starting this whole mess back in The Pandemic Special. And of course, the one prominent character who doesn’t get mentioned for the entire film is alluded to in the final frame. He’ll likely play a significant role in the next South Park made-for-TV-movie this year, and now that all of the setup is out of the way, we’ll hopefully get to a payoff that’s bigger, longer, and uncut.